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A Summer of Self-Care: How Teachers can Restore and Recharge During the Summer

Here is some dramatic data that may not actually surprise you: A recent survey found that over 90 percent of teachers and school staff across the nation reported high levels of stress, and 77 percent reported low satisfaction with their emotional well-being (Teacher Self-Care Conference and the Educators’ Room)

Teachers are under a huge amount of stress due to everything from the aftershocks of the pandemic to budget cuts, school safety concerns, state testing demands, low pay, little planning time, and a lack of appreciation for our work. That’s a lot! 

We can’t just make those stressors disappear. But we can greatly improve the way we experience them. And summer break is the perfect time to start this realignment. 

To help us identify the most effective strategies for summer recharging, we turned to an expert in workplace wellbeing: Aileen Axtmayer, a Wellbeing Speaker and Career Coach. Together, we created the following guide to help you manage schoolhouse stress and reconnect with what you love about teaching—all while protecting and prioritizing your own emotional well-being.



Determine if it’s stress or burnout

It’s important to take a step back to analyze if what you’re  experiencing is stress or burnout:

      • Stress is the nervous system reaction to all these things we’re experiencing. 

      • Burnout is what happens when we don’t come back to that more regulated state and our systems run out of gas.

    Although stressors may ebb and flow throughout the year, most teachers experience some kind of chronic stress level throughout the whole school year. And that can lead to burnout.

    There are three things teachers can look for to determine if they’re burned out. And it’s important to not just look at your teaching. Since teachers are also parents, partners, and friends, you can see signs of burnout in all of these relationships. Are you feeling any of the following? 

        • Emotional exhaustion: The feeling of to-the-bone depletion.

        • Depersonalization: When you start to have less empathy and less ability to put yourself in the shoes of your colleagues, students, or parents.

        • Decreased sense of accomplishment: The feeling of “what’s the point? What difference is my work going to make anyway?”

      For a more detailed assessment of your burnout level, try this informal free survey here. For a formal validated assessment (which has a fee),  we recommend this tool.  If you’re constantly feeling all of these three main signs of burnout, now’s the time to start implementing a recovery plan.

      Prepare for sustainable recovery 

      The key is to set yourself up for success—not just through recovering and recharging over the summer—but also having tools to manage the continuous stress that happens throughout the year.

      Stress is the perception of a threat, which sends our nervous system into fight/flight/freeze. This basically takes the prefrontal cortex part of our brain that does executive functioning offline. So what you want to do is continuously bring your nervous system back to a grounded state after you experience stress, otherwise chronically staying in that state will burn you out. And you can do that with these sustainable recharging and relaxation strategies:

      ⏰ Get off the clock

      During the school year, teachers are often scheduled to the minute, with strictly-allotted time for each task. Yes, we get used to it, but it’s a constant low-grade stressor nonetheless. That’s why during the summer, it’s important to actively slow down and decrease the structure and the pressure to be productive. You want to get more into “being” mode than “doing” mode. 

      When you are in “being” mode, ask yourself: “What’s going to make me feel good and nourished? What’s actually me just putting more expectations and pressure on myself?” It’s important to turn inwards and determine what this really looks like for you. Because for some, reading a book on the beach is restorative. But for others, it may feel like just another thing on the to-do list. 

      ❓ Reconnect with your “why”

      There’s a reason so many people commit their lives to teaching: it’s a bigger calling. But during the school year, it can be easy to disconnect with your “why.” The summer is a chance to really remind yourself what your why is and to clarify it with intention. 

      Some questions/thoughts to help guide this process…. What inspired you to become a teacher? Who was your favorite teacher? Think of a time when you really connected with students, or when you made a dramatic difference: what made that happen? What makes you feel the most valued as a teacher? The most joyful?

      What do you love about science? To get back in touch with that feeling… take a “field trip” to your favorite museum; dive into science stories in magazines or books; get out into the field and join a summer science research project or an Earthwatch expedition

      If you’re connecting with your why throughout the summer, you’re able to then bring it with you into the school year to help ground and boost you when challenges and stressors inevitably arise. Knowing your why is also a great way to protect against all three of those feelings that lead to burnout.










      🧘‍♀️ Start breathing

      Summer is the perfect opportunity to start practices like meditation, yoga, or walking in nature. You have more available time to build routine consistency so that, when the schedule gets tighter and the pressures are higher, these practices are already ingrained and natural. 

      Breathing is one simple practice to focus on in the summer and then use during the school year. There are so many different kinds of breathing, but the main theme is: breathing deeply enough that your belly expands on the inhale and contracts on the exhale. This is called diaphragmatic breathing. It can be a challenge for some people to reconnect to this breath, but know that you don’t have to be able to see it happening for it to work. A simple practice that can support reconnecting to deeper breathing is simply extending your exhale to last longer than your inhale. 

      As kids, we ran around with our belly going in and out as we breathed, but as we get older, we disconnect from that. Many of us now have “screen apnea” where we’re at the computer or looking on our phones and doing very shallow breathing. This is partially due to our posture, but it’s also because we’re not doing those “Buddha belly” breaths. 

      You can use your breathing techniques just before a challenging parent meeting, a stressful test time, or an interaction with a challenging student. You can even pass this on to students to help them with self-regulation.

      💪 Get physical

      Physical activity is another key tool. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a HIIT class—just moving the body for 20-60 minutes a day (which scientific evidence says is “the sweet spot”). 

      Your main goal should be doing what you actually enjoy instead of what you think you “should” be doing. If you say “I should be doing more cardio! I should be training harder!” then you’re just adding on more stress. 

      Particularly for people who are burned out, more restorative movements like nature walks and yoga are useful. These activities bring your nervous system to a calmer state (versus high intensity) and really release the stress cycle.

      🎨 Get creative

      Science says when you’re doing something creative, like coloring, crocheting, or painting, your brain can’t go into “perceiving threats” mode at the same time because it is occupied with that creative activity. Regaining your ability to connect with your own creativity and be in your own flow state just for the joy of it is an extremely positive and uplifting experience. 

      Feel and Connect

      After a year of bottling emotions, it’s important to give yourself a chance to release. And positive social interaction is a huge help, too. All of the following strategies for feeling and connecting are scientifically proven to regulate our nervous systems.

        • Cry: Believe it or not, crying is an evidence-based tool for soothing ourselves, relieving pain, and enhancing mood. Notice how after you have a big cry, you do this certain breath that feels like a release? That’s just what it is! Crying is a physiological release of pent-up emotions that completes that stress cycle.

        • Laugh: Laughter isn’t called the best medicine for no reason. Laughter releases endorphins, helps us bond socially, andlifts our mood. When you’re laughing and experiencing pure joy, your body isn’t focused onthreats.
        • Interact: Interact with other people. It doesn’t have to be anything big. It could be as simple as having small talk with your barista. When we’re in those moments of connectivity with another person, our bodies aren’t as focused on perceiving threats.

        • Be affectionate: During a hug that’s 20 seconds or longer, we actually see a decrease in blood pressure, our heart rate goes down, and oxytocin is released. Your body is also not focused on threats in this position, because this is a position of safety.

      Start your practice

      To make all of these strategies as simple and accessible as possible, we’ve created a Relaxing and Recharging Inspiration Sheet for you to download, keep handy, or hang on your wall or refrigerator. 

      While we certainly recommend all of these strategies, they are not a one-size-fits all prescription. Adapt them to your own needs and circumstances; create your own strategies; and compare notes with friends, family, and colleagues. The summer is yours to explore and experiment with what feels best for you.  


      Many of these strategies come from a book called Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Emily and Amelia Nagoski. 


      Aileen Axtmayer is a Wellbeing Speaker and Career Coach. As an expert on stress and burnout, over the past 15+ years Aileen has helped thousands of people through her keynotes, workshops, and coaching. Aileen has been included in The Boston Globe, Yahoo Finance, and examples of past clients include Harvard T. Chan School of Public Health, America’s Test Kitchen, and Akamai Technologies.


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